View Full Version : Ohio town split over middle school teacher's acts

07-08-2008, 07:16 AM
Anyone care to tell me when it is ok to burn a student's arm even when religion has nothing to do with it? This is a strange article and this town is only about an hour and a half from where i live.


By MATT REED, Associated Press Writer

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio - This small city in central Ohio is dotted with churches of just about every denomination.

"You can't drive two blocks here without running into a church," said Sam Barone, the executive director of the nonprofit Community Foundation of Mount Vernon and Knox County. "There may be communities elsewhere in the country that may be considered areligious, but this isn't one of them."

That hallmark is helping fueling the debate over the fate of a science teacher accused of preaching Christianity in the classroom and burning the image of a cross on students' arms.

John Freshwater, who is battling to save his job at Mount Vernon Middle School, is seen either a courageous fighter for religious freedom or a public employee who brazenly violated the church-state divide.

"This is going to be a mess," said Dr. Allan Bazzoli, who has written letters to the local newspaper criticizing Freshwater. "Resident against resident, and worse, student against student."

Freshwater, 52, was fired last month after an outside consulting firm released a report concluding that he taught creationism and was insubordinate in failing to remove a Bible and other religious materials from his classroom.

He also faces a federal lawsuit filed by the family of a student who says Freshwater burned a cross on the child's arm with an electrostatic device and that the burn mark remained for three or four weeks.

Since then, Freshwater's supporters have rallied on the town's public square urging school board members to resign. A much-viewed sign planted along a roadside about a mile from town reads: "If the Bible goes, the school board should follow."

"The Bible, that should be OK to have," said James Mills, 25, a former student of Freshwater. "Isn't it in the Constitution that we have freedom of religion?"

Freshwater, who has filed an appeal with the school board over his firing, said Monday he's disappointed with the way the investigation was conducted. His appeals hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26.

"They used half-truths. They didn't interview people who had been in my classroom," he said. "Science teachers at the high school: Why would you interview them?"

Freshwater likely will be suspended without pay during the appeals process, which could extend into the fall, said David Millstone, the school board's attorney.

Messages seeking comment were left with middle school Principal William White and other school administrators.

Freshwater has served as a science teacher and wrestling and football coach in Mount Vernon City Schools since 1987. In their report, investigators noted that some students described him as a great guy.

Some residents blame school leaders for letting the situation come to a boil. Officials knew that Freshwater used a science tool to burn images of a cross on students' arms in December, according to findings by outside investigators.

"I think things were just overlooked and overlooked and overlooked and then it just came to a head," said Kelly Montgomery, whose son was a student in Freshwater's class a few years ago. "It's been terrible for the whole community."

Freshwater told investigators he simply was trying to demonstrate the device on three to eight students and described the images an "X" not a cross. But pictures show the images depict a cross, the report said.

Investigators also found that at least one school administrator dealt with complaints about Freshwater for much of her 11 years at the district.

Jessica Philemon, an attorney for the unnamed student's family that is suing Freshwater and the school district, said that raises some troubling questions.

"I want to find out who had complained, to whom they complained and why for 11 years nothing was done," Philemon said. "They could have taken action a while ago."

Bazzoli and other critics say the public's support for Freshwater may be wavering. A demonstration last month in which supporters urged school board members to resign attracted just 25 people.

"When teachers have a contract, they have to follow the state guidelines, and he deliberately went against the guidelines," said Anita Van Winkle, 57, as she sipped coffee at a cafe near the public square.